For potentially as long as alcohol has existed, great chefs have incorporated it into their cooking. Classic recipes including the French Coq au vin (chicken braised in red wine), Italian risottos (Arborio, carnaroli, baldo or vialone nano rice with white wine and stock) and even simple soups, like the German biersuppe (beer soup) are, quite literally in some cases, steeped in wines and beers. Brandy, cognac and portos also make frequent appearances in everything from sauces to desserts.
But why do we cook with alcohol? In some cases, as in the creation of a flambé, alcohol can be burned off of the dish, creating a beautiful and dramatic presentation. Like the flaming shots some of us may have imbibed in our college years, food and beverage soaked in dark rum and lit on fire creates interest and attraction, in addition to unique flavors.
In the case of a risotto, wine is added early in the cooking process to permeate the dish with the acids and fruits of the wine, giving the rice more savory, robust flavors. Wines are also often used in marinades to help break down and tenderize the meat, while beers are often used in batters to help raise the batter and get that light, crisp texture we often associate with beer battered fish. And, often, wines and liqueurs are used to deglaze a pan after browning a piece of meat to loosen up and the brown bits and incorporate the reduced alcohol into a flavorful, complimentary sauce.
Alcohols are pervasive in Milwaukee menus. German restaurant Karl Ratzsch's, 320 E. Mason St., uses local Sprecher beer in its battered haddock. Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, 3133 E. Newberry Blvd., uses alcohol in several higher end entrées such as filet mignon au poivre in a green peppercorn Cognac cream sauce, and canard "Deux Façons" à la sauce Marchand de Vin, (duck done two ways in a red wine sauce).
At Libiamo Restaurant, Tavern and Hall, 221 W. Galena St., wine finds its way into the chili artichoke chicken, and of course, is prevalent in their tiramisu, an Italian dessert made of lady fingers saturated with espresso-flavored liqueur. Owner Dean Cannestra jokes that the most important thing to remember when cooking with wine is, "to make certain you have enough for the dish, and enough for the chef." But his point is an important one that most foodies and chefs recommend: Never cook with a wine you wouldn't drink.
"As wine liberates the human spirit, so too does the proper dosage embolden, brighten and clarify the natural tendencies of good food," says Robert Weiss, owner of Shaker's, 422 S. 2nd St. A bit of wine or liqueur added to a dish can quickly intensify the savory, and in some cases, sweet flavors, of about any dish.
Next time you imbibe, consider adding a bit of your quaff to whatever you're cooking. Everything from tequila to rum, to that brazen red wine you sampled last week can be incorporated into your recipes. What follows is a simple lentil soup recipe featuring red wine as a flavor component.
Corsican Lentil Soup (Robert Weiss, Shaker's Restaurant)
A very thick and hearty meatless soup for a frigid night in Wisconsin-this recipe can be reduced to easily become an interesting side dish for any entrée, from spring lamb to Copper River salmon. Slow simmering of this dish is where the depth of flavors shall develop.
1 lb. dry lentils
1 qt. stewed tomatoes
1 ltr. fresh water*
4 oz. tomato paste
1 sliced caramelized medium yellow onion
4-6 oz. fresh full-bodied red wine (shiraz or zinfandel)
1 tbsp. freshly cracked/ crushed black peppercorns
8 freshly smashed garlic cloves
4-6 oz. unfiltered extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. dried Greek oregano
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried tarragon
1 tbsp. medium sea salt/ (to taste)
To a small stock pot: Caramelize onions in small amount of olive oil. Deglaze pan with dash of wine.
Add: Smashed garlic, herbs / seasoning, sea salt and smashed peppercorns, half the stewed tomatoes, half the red wine and the remainder of olive oil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Stir frequently.
Add: Lentils and half the water, continue to simmer for about 50 minutes. Stir often.
Add: remainder of tomatoes. Tomato paste, wine and water (if desired) and continue to simmer another 30-40 minutes until lentils to preferred texture.
*If desired, you may increase liquids for soupy composition, or continue to cook and reduce the volume, additionally for a side dish.
Total cooking time is about 1.5-2 hours.
Prep time is minimal.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.